Three months after President Goodluck Jonathan performed the foundation laying/commissioning ceremony of the remodelled Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu (AIIA), the airport finally recorded its first international flight last weekend. The landing of Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-800 NG on August 24, 2013 marked the first time an international flight would be landing and taking off from the entire South-East zone since the civil war ended in 1970. The fanfare that attended that landing, and the array of dignitaries who turned out to witness it, were, therefore, quite understandable.
The journey to the South-East’s first international flight in 43 years was a tortuous one, as several years of failed government promises on the project reinforced the belief of the people of the zone that they were not only being marginalized, but also deliberately punished for fighting the civil war. This new opening of the South-East to international flights has corrected much of this impression.
But, the raison d’etre for the Enugu international airport is rooted more in economics than politics. Jonathan acknowledged this much last May when he formally commissioned the airport.
The president had then noted: “There is a very good reason for the decision to confer international status on this airport. As I am sure you all know, Enugu is the gateway to the South-East Region, the home of entrepreneurship in Nigeria. With such a large number of enterprising people with a huge propensity to travel both within and outside the country pursuing various business interests, people of this region have always had to travel first, either to Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja or Kano, in order to be able to travel out of the country on business trips.
“As business people, speed and time are of the essence…the ability to travel directly to your destination abroad or as directly from your base as possible increases the speed of your transactions.” Of course, the role this new airport will play in giving business in the South-East zone and its environs the much-needed boost cannot be overemphasized. Hotel business, local transportation and other allied businesses are expected to experience revival with the opening of the new airport. Similarly, the landing of international flights in Enugu means that losses and unnecessary expenses that South East-based businesses incur transporting their goods from Lagos, Abuja, Kano and other far-flung places would now be eliminated. The risk of armed robbery attacks will be reduced, while the pressure on roads by goods-laden trucks criss-crossing the country will be minimized. Like the president noted, “the South East region of Nigeria, with this international airport, can confidently say to the world, ‘we are open for business.’”
We, therefore, commend President Jonathan for fulfilling one of his campaign promises. It would be recalled that during the campaign for the 2011 presidential election, Jonathan promised the South-East electorate that the airport would be upgraded to international status if the zone supported his bid for the presidency. He was not the first politician to do so. Others seemed to have forgotten this promise as soon as they were elected into office. So, after so many years of unfulfilled promises by successive governments, Jonathan has finally made the Akanu Ibiam International Airport come alive, thereby making an entire region’s 43 years yearning finally come to reality.
Beyond the benefits of the new airport, however, there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the remodeling of the Enugu airport. The success of the airport is a classic case of what can be achieved if a people are determined to turn their lot around. It is an example of what can be achieved if relevant arms and agencies of government decide to work together. It is a further proof that our federalism is workable after all, considering how the various states of the South-East zone co-operated with the Federal Government to ensure that this project came to life. It shows just how much we can achieve as a country and a people whenever we manage to sacrifice our selfish interests for the common good.
For one, the governors of the zone, their elected members in the National Assembly, as well as ministers and other federal government appointees from the zone were in agreement on the need for the project, as well as where it was to be sited. In fact, when it was proving difficult to raise enough funds for the project, members of the South-East Caucus of the National Assembly decided to sacrifice the constituency projects for their respective constituencies for one whole year, just to free extra funds for the completion of the project.
But, while basking in the euphoria of the new airport, we must not lose sight of the need to ensure that the facility is not abandoned. Government must work out an arrangement for running and maintaining the airport so that it would not suffer the same fate that has been the lot of many of our airports. We also call for expedited action on the ongoing remodeling of other airports, including the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA). Similarly, government must resist the temptation to dictate to prospective international airlines which airports to patronise. While it is okay to allow Ethiopian Airlines to fly to Enugu, since it says that is the closest to the destination of no fewer than 80% of its Nigerian passengers, it would also be proper to allow the like of Emirates or Turkish Airlines to decide whether it is Kano, Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt that serves its passengers better. It would amount to economic suicide to, for political reasons, force airlines to airports that are not economically viable.
The completion of the remodeling of the Enugu airport is one major achievement for which President Jonathan deserves everyone’s commendation. It is a thing of joy, not only for the South- East, but the entire country. Now, we can say that government’s determination to boost trade and industry and unlock the economic potentials of the South-Eastern part of the country has genuinely begun.